Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pipa (琵琶) - Studying at IUP

(Writer's Note: The following blog is the third part in a series of entries that will summarize my life as a student at the Inter-University Program at Tsinghua University (IUP). In this entry, I will write about my Chinese language program in Beijing for Light Fellows.)

When one first crosses into the realm of IUP, one will see a work of caoshu calligraphy hung on the opposing wall. One may make out the very first character, xue, 學. The rest looks like gibberish in print. Kind of like the reflection of the tree on the Tsinghua river - colorful and vibrant, but blurry.

IUP was created originally for scholars who wanted to research Chinese art and history and for future officials who wanted to discuss policy and economics. Now, the student population at this program is diverse, accepting undergraduates, graduate students, professors, investment bankers, consultants, journalists, curators, doctors, lawyers, musicians, to name a few. The students at IUP come from very different life backgrounds - a SAIS graduate fluent in Thai and strategic studies, a Harvard Chinese philosophy postdoc interested in green energy who worked as lead cook in Kyrgyzstan, an ex-engineer-cancer-survivor planning to teach English to children in Yunnan, a filmmaker with crushes on Three Kingdoms military strategist Zhu Geliang, a public health researcher who's smoked marijuana in Burma - to describe a few. And then there's that undergraduate who's having a mid-college crisis and seeks escape in Chinese. The learning is not just in the classroom.

Class size and textbook design are the pillars of IUP. Class size is limited to three students per teacher. The textbooks are designed so that vocabulary is purposely repeated. While the ambitious student may criticize this tactic as a cheap way of repeating words, it's actually repetition that reinforces and consolidates your mastery of the language. Most intensive programs constantly list new vocabulary without allowing students adequate review time - in IUP's textbooks, review is built in. Once your Chinese language level is high enough, you can take independent tutorials, where you select your own reading material.

The teachers are at once your educators and friends. The teachers at IUP are young (relative to your average Chinese language teacher back in the United States) - most are somewhere around 25. The older ones either act unbearably young or outrageously old. They are also female (except for the one male teacher in the picture above). They are very approachable but cliquish at the same time, especially the older teachers. But don't let the way they group together intimidate you. If there's anything that psychology books and Sex and the City has taught me, women coagulate so that they can be approached. A seemingly self-defeating dilemmic answer, but true. Eat lunch with them, hang out in their offices, make random jokes - eventually they all change.

Studying for classes varies from student to student. Lots of students enjoy Wenlin, found on all computers at IUP, as well as various dictionaries in the library for the usual vocabulary search. Some students rely on flashcards and rote memorization, associating English translations of words to their Chinese counterparts. While this strategy works for maybe through third-year Chinese, I feel that to really make a leap in Chinese learning you should graduate the cards and rely only on recordings and incessant reading of the text. Chinese is learned best when learned as native Chinese students learn it - through memorization or deep familiarization of entire passages. Also, the sooner you can exclusively use Chinese-Chinese dictionaries instead of Chinese-English dictionaries, the better.

After a few modules of hard studying at IUP, I looked down at the river and saw the trees' reflection in the water. I was pleased to see the outline of the trunks and clumps of leaves and branches - an improvement from the yellow green mixture from before.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dizi (笛子) - Bikes

(Writer's Note: The following blog is the second part in a series of entries that will summarize my life as a student at the Inter-University Program at Tsinghua University (IUP). In this entry, I will talk about biking in Beijing for Light Fellows.)
Traffic is a constant in Beijing, no matter what mode of transportation you select. This means that even if you drive, you may not get to your destination faster than a pedestrian. However, as shown in the picture to the left, many people bike. Bus and subway are popular for cross-district or cross-city commute, and trains are for cross-province travel. In Beijing, getting around any where is rather arduous and time-consuming without a bike.

Even the illustrious leader of IUP, Li Yun, rides a bike to and from IUP.

A few differences between biking in Beijing and the United States:
1. No one wears a helmet. (Unless the bicyclist is very accident-prone.)
2. No one gets ticketed for not wearing a helmet.
3. Talking on the cell phone with one hand and eating ice cream with the other while cycling is not uncommon.
4. Bikers often compete with buses and horses for road supremacy. This is especially true at intersections - no sane Beijing driver will stop for a slow cycler unless said driver is a sex-deprived male and said cycler is a woman with a very short skirt. (Said driver is common. Said cycler is rare.)
5. Honking does not immediately lead to road rage in China. Rather, it's ignored by the biker.
6. Bike repair spots are ubiquitous. Repairmen vary in honesty and skill.
Old man Shang in the Dongwangzhuang neighborhood is hands down the best repairman in Beijing. The repairman near the Wudaokou station is an overcharging fart who takes a million years to change a broken basket. Old man Shang lives less than a minute from my apartment, so I just go over and talk to him about Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance. (No joke.) His Mandarin is very unstandard but musical in a Shaanxi sort-of way. He lost a couple fingers on his left hand because of an accident back in his farming days, but doesn't let that stop from reviving bikes.

For Light Fellows - learn to bike. ("Accident-prone" is a poor excuse. Get a helmet and some pads if you're that scared.) Biking may be the only form of exercise that you'll get if you're going to devote yourself to studying Chinese. If you'll be in China for a year, consider investing in a decent sturdy bike with a strong lock instead of buying the cheap 160 RMB model. For guys who can't spread their legs high enough to clear the bike frame from the back, the female models are designed so that bikes can be mounted from the front. Black, gray and dark blue bikes are less likely to be stolen than bikes of any other color. If biking really isn't right for you, get an electric bike. Beware of speeding - like I mentioned above, ticketing isn't a problem. Crashing into other cars and pedestrians is. A strong electric bike will be good enough to take you throughout Haidian district and even to Chaoyang (a 30 minute commute on local roads).

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

二胡(erhu) - Dongwangzhuang

(Writer's Note: The following blog is the first part in a series of entries that will summarize my life as a student at the Inter-University Program at Tsinghua University (IUP). In this entry, I will talk about accomodation in Beijing for Light Fellows.)

Tsinghua University offers dormitories for foreign students around the campus's northeast corner. Foreign students are still not allowed to live with Chinese students. The dormitory offers singles and doubles. I selected the single, but the living conditions were far from ideal. My single was right next to the laundry room, which forced me to bear quite a few sleepless nights listening to the washing and drying machines go off. The walls and curtains provided by the dormitory services are both thin. I wake up to small sounds and small rays of light, so I bought some dark bedsheets, punched holes in them and hung it over the curtain to block out light. After a few weeks, I realized that my ceiling was leaking water from the broken air conditioner, which after a few repair sessions still was not repaired. Eventually the damp ceiling tiles turned moldy and began to change the air quality inside my dorm.

Near the end of my summer term at IUP, I saw an ad up on the school bulletin of an apartment in Dongwangzhuang.
Dongwangzhuang (东王庄) is located east of Tsinghua University, south of the Forestry University and north of the Language and Culture University. The former resident, Wiley and Richard, wanted to keep the apartment for IUPers because it had already been passed down by IUPers for many years. After meeting up with Wiley, seeing the apartment and meeting with the landlord, I decided that looking at other apartments was a waste of time and agreed to sign the lease agreement.
Fortunately, I found a wonderful roommate, Jillian, through IUP's group email before I signed the lease to split the rent. I packed my luggage back in Tsinghua's moldy dorms, hired a "black car" (黑车, the driver who was so nice that he helped me with the luggage throughout the move and had white liquor
(erguotou 二锅头) with me), and moved in early August. A few nights later I invited IUP students for a housewarming party, wine and snacks complimentary of IUP.
Dongwangzhuang is a cute neighborhood with just the right amount of conveniences and culture. During early morning, street stands sell meat-stuffed buns, bowls of spiced tofu, strips of fried dough, seaweed soup and egg pancake sandwiches. Old ladies practice their sword or fan dances in the concrete parks while the men waddle around or play ping-pong.
During the evening, the street stands are stocked with meat and vegetable shish kabobs, boiled, grilled or roasted. A supermarket is available for people who enjoy cooking (I like to watch people cook and help peel onions). There are as of late May four fresh fruit and vegetable vendors. Back on the concrete yard, the red ornament lights and Chinese ballroom dance music are turned on. Couples young and old practice their swing, waltz and salsa at the same time. I've seen an American couple do some southern ditty to some classic Cultural Revolution tune. The old men crowd around tables smacking cards onto crude wooden tables, waddle around or play ping-pong.

Outside the neighborhood gates, Korean restaurants line the streets. Wangzhuang Street has perhaps three Chinese restaurants, total. The rest are all Korean.

For Light Fellows who will study at HBA, PiB or CET-Beijing, accomodations are provided by the programs.
Fellows who elect to study at IUP have the option of living on campus, but I strongly suggest living off-campus simply because there is much to see beyond the campus bubble. I've heard complaints from previous fellows that they haven't been able to see the cultural phenomenons described in their textbooks. I've also heard previous fellows wail that they haven't been able to really connect with the people who live in Beijing except through language partners and teachers.
They all usually say this while sitted in a coffee bar tucked away on campus.

Dongwangzhuang is by no means the only place to live in Wudaokou. The Huaqing Jiayuan apartments, the Xiwangzhuang apartments, the Dongshengyuan apartments are just a few neighborhoods in which IUPers have lived. Some students commute from districts as far as Sanlitun and Dongzhimen. Generally speaking, the apartments further from Tsinghua are cheaper and less furnished. Huaqing Jiayuan Apartments are perhaps the most expensive apartments in Wudaokou because of its central location, close distance to Tsinghua University and to all the shops, restaurants and bars on Chengfu Road.

For IUPers - Don't panic about housing. There are plenty of apartments that can be found. Many IUPers before or after finishing classes will post ads on the IUP panlist to ease your search. Some will even post gym memberships and bike offers. You can respond to ads while still in the States or another country, but I strongly recommend that you apartment-shop once you get to Beijing. You can personally observe your future housing conditions and choose among many selections rather than binding yourself to a place that does not satisfy you.

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